Sex in YA

8 Jul
by Vanessa Di Gregorio
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Today, we’re going to have a discussion; possibly even a debate. And I’d really love it if you could all share your opinions.

Yes, I’m talking about the big S-E-X. See, sex in YA has been an ongoing debate in the writing and publishing world for years. In fact, last week, Savannah’s agent Laura Bradford (@bradfordlit) started a twitterchat about #sexinya. And the difference in opinions was phenomenal. Parents don’t want to expose their kids to it, and yet teens are eager to learn more about it. Some writers think they need to be conscious of the sex they include in YA, and other writers think that any and all sex is suitable for a YA audience. Sex is readily available on TV, in movies, and even in music videos; so why is it that sex in fiction for young adults creates such a storm of debate?

I’m still not sure why this is. Perhaps it’s because kids are going through that phase where they begin transitioning into adults; that stage full of rebellion and hormones and peer pressure. Maybe people feel that kids are growing up too fast; they become too eager to follow what they see on TV. And maybe, people think that sex in fiction for Young Adults will only make them grow up faster.

Here’s what I think though; the reason why most kids read up is because they are being censored. They want to know more about the world of adults, so most kids skip past the YA section to read adult fiction. It is in the teenage years that young adults begin to explore their sexuality; and with it all over shows and movies featuring kids in high school being sexually active, it seems silly that sex in fiction would be deemed as inappropriate. It seems as if people are worried that sex will look like – and be portrayed as – physical pleasure. But I know that there is more to sex than just the physicality; and I knew that as a teen as well.

As a teen, I was reading both YA and adult books. I remember when, once, when I was around 13 or 14, I picked up a YA book. I can’t recall the name, but it had a sex scene very early on. What I can remember is what I was like: naive and curious, but completely inexperienced with boys or kisses or anything of that sort. And there I was, reading this incredibly graphic (for me, at the time) and awkward sex scene occurring in the back of a car; and I found myself so embarrassed and shocked that I closed the book and never opened it up again. If I had been a few years older, perhaps I wouldn’t have stopped reading. Or perhaps my reaction would’ve been the same. Who knows? But my point is that sex in YA isn’t going to make a hormonal teen run out and experience it first hand. Some might be absolutely fascinated; and others might decide that they don’t want that. Not every book is for every person. But everyone should have the opportunity to decide whether or not they want to read about something.

Often, sex in YA (Looking For Alaska is a great example) has awkward intimate scenes; and this is because sex for young adults is often awkward. In fact, speaking of Looking For Alaska, make sure you check out the Youtube video later in this post, where author John Green defends his reason for having sex in his YA novel.

Of course, I’m not the only one here who has an opinion on the whole sex in YA debate. Here’s what the other ladies had to say:

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Julie: I’ve worked with teenagers for over twelve years, and I can tell you that many parents are very good at ignoring the obvious fact that their teenaged children are sexual beings. You’d be amazed. I think we all have to be honest, and acknowledge that sexuality is an issue in the lives of teenagers.

That said, I also think it’s important to recognize that each member of the YA audience is unique, and each book aimed at that audience is unique. It would be impossible to write a blanket set of rules about sex in YA. I believe that YA authors, even those writing fantasies, should tell the truth about the generation they are writing about. In some cases, that will mean dealing with sexual situations and sexual behavior, but not always. When the story involves sexual situations, I believe as authors, we should write about those situations with honesty. Just like I don’t think we should ignore the issue of sex, I don’t think it should be thrown into a story just to make the book more “buzz-worthy.”

When I was a teenager, I read the book Forever, by Judy Blume. I’m sure my mother didn’t know there was sex in it; she assumed it was another Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. I remember that once I got over the frank way sex was dealt with in the book, I appreciated that, for once, someone was writing for teenaged readers without talking down to us. I would have to say the book had no influence at all on decisions I made for myself about sex. But, to be totally honest, I never did tell my mother about the sex in the book.

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Savannah: I’m not an expert on YA fiction, but having been an advanced reader at a young adult stage, here’s my two cents:

I do think there’s a lot that goes on in the lives of teenagers, whether their parents know about it or admit it or not. However, I also think that teenagers acting in ‘adult ways’ rarely have adult experience and wisdom to process their actions. Therefore, a sexual act has a different meaning to a teenager, versus an adult. To me the question isn’t ‘should there be sex in YA?’ but rather ‘through what lens should sex be looked at in YA?’

I think that readers of the YA age are curious about sexuality, and all the physical and emotional benefits and consequences that come with it. Sexuality is part of human nature, and whether parents like it or not their children will become sexually active in some form. Hiding or forbidding discussions or portrayals of sexual behavior is more harmful than helpful. And let’s face it… if a young adult wants to learn about this stuff, they’ll find a way, no matter what their parents do.

I say open up the forum for discussion by including sexuality in YA literature. Kids are already dealing with it; why not provide them with material they can empathize with and maybe even learn from? I think that would be immensely more helpful than trying to pretend that young adults are asexual beings.

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Kat: I think I was eleven years old the first time I read about sex in anything but a scientific, this-is-how-babies-are-made context (my parents are doctors, okay? I never got The Talk. I got books instead and a Why Don’t You Read This, Dear?)

The book was in my middle school library, and to be honest, I’m surprised it was there. It wasn’t YA–it wasn’t even fiction–but it did talk about the horrific sexual abuse of a young child. And it didn’t pull any punches. The book was narrative nonfiction, so it read like a story, especially to an eleven year old who could hardly believe the things described in the book had happened to someone in real life.

I talk about this because that book honestly changed me. It opened up my world. I don’t think I’d be the same person I am today if I’d never read it–or even if I’d read it at a later age, when I was more worldly.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m very much against blanket censoring of things intended for youth. Maybe another sixth grader would have been terribly scarred by this book. I don’t know. But for this sixth grader, that book came at just the right time. And if my middle school library had refused to carry it because it dealt with sex (or sexual abuse), I would have missed out on something life-changing.

Sex is sex. Within a book, it’s only a topic. It can be approached a million different ways. It can be received a million different ways. Trying to cut it out of YA books completely, in my opinion, would be a mistake–not to mention terribly unrealistic.

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Biljana: I was also one of those people that would read up. I learned about sex in school in grade 5 (during health class, not during recess) and I was reading books that had sex in them by grade 6. I haven’t turned into a sex-crazed maniac or some kind of whore. Like Julie, it didn’t influence any of my decisions, and although I was embarrassed at first to read some sections, I never approved of censorship.

There are, of course, boundaries, and sometimes there’s a fine line between details that make it emotionally relevant and details that make it smut. I’m not saying give your kids 40 Days of Sodom to read, or something, but don’t think that just because your teen doesn’t talk about sex to you, they’re not thinking about it.

Furthermore, wouldn’t it be better for them to read about sex in YA books, where the characters are in the same boat as they are, than in a chick-lit novel where sex sometimes has no strings attached? Wouldn’t you rather have your teen read not only about the pleasure of sex, but also some of the repercussions it can have?

Those kinds of conflicts have a better place with characters that are just exploring their sexuality, than with characters in their twenties or thirties. They’re perfect for YA. You’re not going to find any romance novels where the hero and heroine finally have sex and whoops! Turns out it wasn’t the fantasy they expected. You can screw someone over by censoring them just as easily as you think you can by not. If you get a virgin to read only about how fabulous and awe-inspiring and dazzling sex is, because all they can get their hands on is an adult book where sex isn’t a major issue anymore, they’re going to be terribly disappointed when they finally lose the V-Card.

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Vahini: As a teenager, I can say that I absolutely hate being spoken down to or preached at. If your story requires sex, write it that way. I actually think that sex is a non-issue in terms of can it be there or not (of course it can), but is an issue writing wise in that unless it forwards story, or characterisation in some way it probably shouldn’t be there.

The reason why I think sex is a non-issue, and don’t think it should get lumped with drinking, drugs, smoking as it so often does: Those things are illegal, sex isn’t (well, at least it isn’t if you’re writing upper YA). So it fascinates me that sex seems to be a more controversial topic than those other things. Obviously, considering that your target audience are still exploring their sexuality they’re not going to be very experienced, things are going to be awkward etc but I think it should be fine to include sex. It works fantastically in books like Looking for Alaska by John Green, Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, and Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta.

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Sarah: I had my first sex-ed class when I was 8 years old, so by the time I hit puberty, I was well-aware of all the technical stuff. However, reading books with sex in them exposed me to the emotional part of it. I was definitely curious about sex, and too embarrassed to ask anyone all the questions I had, so books definitely provided me with some information. I never once felt swayed by these books–reading about sex didn’t make me want to run to the nearest willing dude and lose my v-card.

I think adults tend to forget that teens are capable of making responsible decisions. I get the whole concerned parent thing, but censoring books isn’t going to stop teens from learning about (and having) sex. If anything, keeping information from them could possibly lead to irresponsible choices. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel as if the better-informed teens are, the better the odds are of them making safe choices. Having sex in YA opens up a dialogue. Let’s keep it open.

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Jenn: It’s a funny reflection of American culture that sex in YA is such a huge issue, but people dying or being murdered in YA and MG books isn’t even something to think twice about. Anyway, I’ve always been pretty oblivious. Even though I started reading adult books at the end of grade school and kept on through middle school, I missed all of the innuendo. Of course, when it was blatant it was impossible to miss, but I always just skimmed to get back to the story. I wasn’t interested in reading about sex. Everyone reacts differently, so you can’t really say one way or another what effect certain scenes will have on individuals. I’m glad my parents didn’t censor what I read; I can’t think of a single thing I chose to read that I would say harmed me or adversely affected me. And of course, the one time my mom told me not to read something I went straight for it behind her back. That’s the other effect of censorship, if you try to keep things from people, especially teenagers and kids, they’re going to want to find out more.

If you’re going to write a realistic book about teenagers, you’re going to have to address sex in some way, even if it’s just awkward teenage curiosity. And I think it’s better to present a more realistic version than what you’d find in a romance novel. I liked how Tamora Pierce handled it in TERRIER where she established Beka had tried it and not been all that impressed. Leah Cypress also did a nice job in MISTWOOD where Rokan is superawkwardly trying to get a girl to come to his room, and failing. There’s no explicit sex scenes, but it is included as a fact of life.

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So here are my questions to all of you: what is your stance on sex in YA (even if you yourself do not read or write it)? Do you think it is inappropriate? Are there certain types of sex that are suitable for teenagers to read? What is TOO graphic? Did you ever read any novels with sex in them while you were still young (and did your parents know)? What did you think of John Green’s argument from the video above?

I encourage you all to speak up; it’s always interesting to hear what people’s opinions are. All I’m going to ask is that you remember to respect one another’s opinions.

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Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.

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59 Responses to “Sex in YA”

  1. samanthabina July 8, 2010 at 12:19 AM #

    GAH! I meant to respond to this, but it somehow just slipped away from me this week. Sorry ladies!

    Some thoughts of my own:

    I’ve never been big on censorship when it comes to writing. I think sex is one of those topics that adults like to think teens don’t think about. Which is funny, considering they were once that age and know exactly how the teenage mind works. So to try and take that aspect of their lives out of books seems kind of silly. As long as the topic is handled in a way that is realistic for the characters and situation, I don’t see anything wrong with it. In fact, I’ve seen sex popping up more and more in the slush pile at work. I think it’s a topic that can be dealt with in the open now, rather than something people used to consider taboo in writing.

    And I TOTALLY read up when I was younger. My grandma had this room full of books, and probably 90% of them were dirty erotica. Needless to say, as a read-a-holic, I would sneak up there every time we went to visit and pick one out. And look at me! I turned out just fine 😀

    • Vanessa July 8, 2010 at 8:50 AM #

      Aww, no worries Sammy!

      And I’m not entirely sure I’D say you turned out fine… (I’m kidding! <3)

  2. Myra July 8, 2010 at 12:56 AM #

    Inappropriate? Ha. I’d tell anyone who thinks it’s inappropriate spend a day in high school and see what teenagers really are like. You’re invitably going to come across someone talking about sex, and further, about drugs and alcohol and of course there’ll be the kid who drops “the F bomb” every other sentence.

    Some parents need to realise that this is what being a teenager is like. No amount of censorship placed on books is going to change this. Through our friends, acquaintances and peers, we are constantly subject to this stuff. It’s nothing new. And it’s not that it’s all we talk about, either, but it comes up so casually we don’t really take special notice of it.

    Julie has it right though–everyone is an individual and when it comes to reading it depends on your maturity. I absolutely love this one book now (Sloppy Firsts) that at fourteen I didn’t like. I thought that it was unrealistic and that the characters were all sex-obsessed. I get to high school, reread it, and laugh at how lifelike this book is. Same thing with Looking for Alaska. I really appreciated the awkward sex scene, TBH. It was so realistic to the teenage experience–and I’ve heard plenty of crazy awkward stories courtesy of some friends who censor just about nothing.

    Besides, when we’re constantly exposed to sex in media, TV, and everyday conversation, a YA book ain’t gonna make a damn difference.

    Parents need to stop freaking out about it. It annoys me when I see someone give a bad review to a good book (like Looking for Alaska) because of OMG DRUGS SEX ALCOHOL OH MY! MY TEEN IS GOING TO BE CORRUPTED BY THE F BOMB OH MY! I bet you a million bucks your kid’s been “corrupted” by the time he’s gotten his hands on a book with a little swearing. If not by firsthand experience, then by stories from friends. Oh, and swear words–some parents would be shocked to hear these kids who use a swear word like it’s going out of style. They probably just haven’t told their parents.

    Hands up, teenagers that tell their parents everything… I’m betting that the number will be small. I tell my parents some stuff, but I censor it most of it, mostly because, yes, I fear the OMG WHAT ARE YOU BEING EXPOSED TO lecture. Honestly, it’s just awkward, and I think that parents need to realise that while we are exposed to this stuff we don’t necessarily want to talk about it to them. It’s easier to relate to someone your age about sex. This doesn’t encompass everyone, of course; I’m speaking about this stuff from personal experience, and that of my friends, in high school.

    Oh, wow, that is a long comment. Basically, censorship isn’t going to do much, because sex and other things are so prevalent in our daily life a book isn’t going to make a difference. And if we do want for sex in books and it’s not in YA, there’s always adult fiction. Censorship would just be pointless.

    • Vanessa July 8, 2010 at 8:49 AM #

      I totally and completely agree!!!

      It’s funny, because there were so many parents participating in the #sexinya twitter chat, and a lot of them were saying that they make sure they know what their kids are reading, or read the book before their kids can. I think that’s a bit invasive; it’s one thing to both enjoy reading the same books, but it’s another thing to decide what your kid/teen can or can’t read! I am so grateful that my mom encouraged reading, and let me read whatever I wanted. Even comic books!

    • Kayleigh July 8, 2010 at 3:35 PM #

      *puts her hand up*

      Okay, so I don’t tell them EVERYTHING, but they know that I say “fuck” quite a bit, I even say it in front of them, they know I’ve drunk alcohol and that I stopped drinking before I got drunk, and seeing as I’ve watched A Clockwork Orange (WITH my dad) and Desperate Housewives and True Blood, I’d say they know that I know all about sex.

      I know that I’m lucky to have such open-minded, honest parents. I mean when I was 9 (NINE) I asked my dad what an orgasm was. He gave me an answer. (He just said “A moment of intense pleasure” and I was fine with his answer.) AND he didn’t ask me where I heard that word.

      • Vanessa July 8, 2010 at 4:10 PM #

        Wow. When I asked my parents what porn was at around 11, my parents just looked at me in shock and said nothing.

        I envy people who have such open relationships with their parents, even in their teenage years! Thankfully, my parents see me as an adult now; so we`re much more open than we used to be about the “taboo” stuff.

        • Kayleigh July 8, 2010 at 10:56 PM #

          And on top of having open-minded parents, I had my best friend who was… precocious? Aged 10-11, she already knew what porn. I remember once, with her and an other friend, still only 11 years old, we looked up dirty videos during a sleepover. But not at night, nooo. It was daytime and her mother was downstairs vacuum cleaning and our other friend was distracting her by talking about Harry Potter. Yeah. She was a bad influence. Well, not really I guess, since I’m normal.

          The next year, it was dirty Harry Potter fanfic. Yup. 12 years old and there we were, reading “Delightful Pain” on Mugglenet.

          But seriously, I’ve turned out just fine.

          • Biljana July 9, 2010 at 12:03 AM #

            Lol dirty Harry Potter fanfic was my introduction to smut.

            • Vahini July 9, 2010 at 12:54 AM #

              Me too! Lol.

              • svonnah July 9, 2010 at 10:20 AM #

                Me three!

  3. Nicole July 8, 2010 at 2:43 AM #

    I believe that censorship is bad (to put it lightly). A blanket censor over all novels labeled as YA does not make any sense, since YA covers an age group ranging from 10 (when I started reading YA…wait I was reading adult books to by then…) to those in their 20s.

    Obviously, 10 year olds might know how babies are made but are not mature enough to understand the emotional side of sex, I’m 18 I still don’t really understand it, but some as young as 12 are, well, you cant really put an year on it because everyone is different.

    The assumption that once a teen read/watches a sex scene in a book/movie they will go out and have sex is just as stupid as saying gamers who play violent video games go and kill people. Are all sex scenes equal? No. Some add to the story, like John Green says, his scene adds contrast to the one following it, and others don’t. So again, one size fits all censoring does not cut it.

    My freshman year in high school (that puts me at age 15ish) the librarian, who I later TA-ed for and was my senior project mentor, recommend The Cider House Rules by John Irving to me. I read it. I had read sex scenes in other stories (some tasteful some not) but I found descriptions of sex and the abortions very graphic and told the librarian he scarred me for life. The Cider House Rules is an adult book, in fact, I went on to read all the other books by Irving in the library and found sex a theme in all of them, which was not something I liked but Irving is an excellent writer and all his books have unique thought provoking stories. Why not read them?

    Did someone force me to read Irving’s books? No. I chose to. Teens are able to think for themselves. If a book has sex in it they can choose not to read it. In the case of Finding Alaska the school did as they should, cover their asses and do the parent permission form. My mother always signed these but I always would get the ‘why are you watching/reading these in school’ rant.

    Being a librarian assistant my junior year, I could not believe how many books people wanted censored. And my high school library is pretty small! These people forget that some teens are at an adult reading/comprehension level and others are a lower level so that school libraries need to reflect that. My librarian thankfully fought every censorship tooth and nail. I think of only one book that was censored (A piece of vampire drivel that was of no literary value and most of the 150 pages was graphic sex, even I could see why it was removed).

    It is silly to think that censoring sex in novels will help, there is sex in TV, movies, magazines, video games and school. Its there, and teens are dealing with it. It is just another thing unique to the YA genre. I agree with Kat’s statement, “Within a book, it’s only a topic. It can be approached a million different ways. It can be received a million different ways. Trying to cut it out of YA books completely, in my opinion, would be a mistake–not to mention terribly unrealistic.”

    • Vanessa July 8, 2010 at 9:09 AM #

      One of the first times I encountered nudity in a book was in K.A. Applegate’s Everworld series. It seemed like an obvious leap, since I was reading Animorpphs as well. I can’t quite remember if there was sex… but definitely nudity. The part that I really remember, however, is the violence. But the series, though fantasy, had so many realistic elements. I probably didn’t even fully grasp the intricacies of the relationships between the characters; but I understood enough. I loved, though, that nothing was being dumbed down for me.

      And I’ve ALWAYS hated how people say video games desensitize people/make them violent. I play plenty of video games (and plenty of violent ones); but I STILL can’t stomach gore in movies or TV shows. Blood, cuts, gore; I can’t do it. It’s the reason I can’t watch horror movies… there is just too much blood and gore.

      • Nicole July 8, 2010 at 1:40 PM #

        I don’t like horror movies, I don’t mind blood and gore in war/fighting movies but horror take it a bit to far.

  4. tessaquin July 8, 2010 at 4:35 AM #

    I read adult fantasy books (about magic) and it had a lot of sex in it. Those were my first real introduction to sex (yeah, I had education at school, but it came late). My parents knew I was reading these books and I checked them out at the library, so the librarian knew. My best friend knew also (and read the books). This is a 42 book series and very popular in Iceland. That’s right, I’m an Icelander.

    The difference in Icelandic parents and American, I believe, is that Icelandic parents are so much more relaxed when it comes both to their teens reading/talking about sex and also actually having sex. Icelandic parents don’t go around and forbid their teens to have sex; they’re more likely to just trust them with it or ask that they be careful. I remember my mother pulling me aside the first time I got a boyfriend (16 years old…I wasn’t into the whole boyfriend thing before that) and told me that she wasn’t going to interfere, that she trusted me to be careful. It was embarrassing, but I appreciated it. Turned out that even though I read those 42 books that portrayed graphic sex, I ended up having sex nearly 17 years old and married the guy several years later (still married). In fact, there were girls in my class who were already having sex way before that, and those girls weren’t fond of reading. I suppose that what I might be trying to say is that if teenagers don’t get other means to learn about sex (such as in books or movies), they’re likely to go out and try it themselves to learn.

    I don’t think sex in books make teens go out and try it. I think it’s good for teenagers to read about it. The more they read, the more they’re aware, and the more they’re likely to make good choices.

    I was very nervous about having make-out scenes in my novel because I chose to write for the American market. Honestly, make-out scenes. I know that American parents are very protective when it comes to sex in books, so I nearly skipped the make-out all together. But I decided to keep it, since it doesn’t lead to sex. In my series, sex wouldn’t fit in the first book, but possibly in later books. I still haven’t decided if I should include it or not.

    I really appreciate this discussion. I think it’s important for American parents to approach their teens a little differently.

    • Vanessa July 8, 2010 at 9:14 AM #

      It’s funny, because North American society has sex ingrained in our culture; it’s there, no matter where you look. TV, movies, video games, etc. And yet parents are so worried about sex in BOOKS.

      I’ve known 13 year olds who have had sex. Everyone is different; we all take different paths. It doesn’t mean one is good and one is bad though. I think parents should be more like yours; they should focus on the safety aspect of it, because it’s inevitable.

      And also… Icelandic!? Very cool! I love hearing how different some cultures are. 😀

  5. Ereza July 8, 2010 at 6:15 AM #

    From what I’ve read, it seems sex in YA is handled pretty well. In many of the YA books I read it seemed like a natural place/development for the character to explore. Though I never mentioned to my parents what exactly I read (mostly because they weren’t interested) apart from Harry Potter back then lol.

    I think the first book I read that had sex in it was either a sci-fi fantasy book or part of an adult novel set in Sicily (lol that description made me blush, an aunt had given me that free book without realising what was in it.) I think the most graphic thing I read when I was younger wasn’t sex but the description of a female doctor in Afghanistan that was trying to operate on some women that had been abused. I think it was a realistic novel which dealt with that trauma but also conveyed to me what was like for some in a Taliban occupied place which was pretty informative and did not scar me for life even though it was pretty horrible. Though those books were aimed at adult readers. The YA books I read as a teen that explored sex seemed to depict realistic encounters and emotions and shed light on different experiences for different people.

    • Vanessa July 8, 2010 at 9:21 AM #

      YA, even if it’s fantasy, deals with realistic issues. It’s probably the reason why I enjoy YA so much; it doesn’t try too hard. Sometimes I read adult stories, and can only think: why is this even here? If something serves no point in a story (ie. sex), it shouldn’t be there. I like when sex in fiction REVEALS something about reality, or society, or the character; or all of the above. I don’t like when it’s just gratuitous. That’s just personal taste on my part, I suppose. But YA deals with issues; and fantastical, mind-blowing sex isn’t an issue; it’s a gratuitous fantasy. It’s not YA. But sex that deals affects the characters in more than just a “oh yes” way is YA.

      • Biljana July 9, 2010 at 12:14 AM #

        Maybe that’s the problem people have with it. It’s TOO realistic. It’s too close and too personal and parents recognize something that they maybe don’t want to relive, or don’t want their child to know about. They’re trying to protect them not only of sex, but of the highly emotional aspects, ranging from happiness, trauma, misery, and indifference, that can come out of teen sex or frankly any kind of sex at all.

  6. Angela July 8, 2010 at 7:02 AM #

    I didn`t know what sex was until I was 11, seriously. I had sex education classes before that, but they were about getting your period and so on, and I didn`t understand a single word the teachers were saying (I`m a pretty dense person).

    My parents were also uncomfortable with talking about sex with me. I remember when I was 8, my dad and I were watching Shallow Hal, and my dad suddenly covered my face with a blanket and said that a scary part was coming up and he didn`t want me to get nightmares. =_= I even believed him. The same thing happened when I pointed at the American Pie DVD and asked if I could watch it. He told me it was too scary.

    As sad as it sounds, an 8-year-old girl taught me about sex by giving me a book when I was 11 and at a friend`s family party. The book was the most interesting thing I had ever read O.o I learned all these new words such as rape and condoms and so on, and out of curiosity, I researched those words and began to piece together what sex is.

    However, I only learned that sex could be pleasurable when I was 14 and read a book called Just a Princess by Johanna Lindsey. The experience shocked and traumatized me, but I couldn`t help but go back and read more and more O.O Of course, I realized that the portrayal of sex in adult romance novels is different from the reality, but still…

    But yeah, I sort of went off topic, but basically, my sex education was novels and books. I would have liked to read YA novels that deal with sex, but of course, those were pretty rare when I was a few years younger.

    I see nothing wrong with sex in YA. Like a lot of people have posted above, censoring sex would be pointless.

    I`m totally against censorship. In my opinion, it violates freedom of speech.

    • Vanessa July 8, 2010 at 8:57 AM #

      Angela, my dad did the EXACT SAME THING with movies! If there was nudity, or a sex scene, he would cover my eyes and fast-forward through the scene.

      And I had a cousin give me this great non-fiction book about girls and their bodies and sex and all of that when I was 14 or 15. She felt a bit weird giving it to me, but to this day I think it was one of the greatest books I’ve ever received. Here were all these answers, and all these opinions from real-life teens, who were experiencing the same thing as me. I could read about the parts of a woman’s body, and the parts of a man’s body, without feeling embarrassed. I was fascinated! There were pictures and everything, but it opened my eyes to a world I knew nothing about. And it certainly didn’t make me run off full of immoral thoughts. I was just less ignorant.

      • Aurora Blackguard July 8, 2010 at 11:11 AM #

        Oh gosh, there was this one time I was working in a Christmas fair and there was a book corner. So I was assigned there one day and there was this book aimed at kids from 5-8. It was funny because it talked all about the process from point A to B. I spent one hour there with a friend, dissecting it. We already knew about sex then but actually reading a book aimed at sex education.

        A little boy wanted to buy it. And his mom said yes.

        It was kind of shocking but in context to this, I guess all I have to say is if it’s okay to print books like this for kids aged 5-8, why is bad for there to be sex in YA?

      • Angela July 8, 2010 at 5:05 PM #

        Yeah, it`s kind of sad, because I think the best people to teach you about sex is your parents.

        But a lot of parents these days don`t want to even bring up the subject with their kids ):

        • Aurora Blackguard July 9, 2010 at 12:10 AM #

          Odd isn’t it? I mean, wouldn’t parents be able to tell you in ways you’d understand? The birds and the bees anyone? It’s depressing how much they worry when they can actually prevent it. Like the song .. Do It Again 🙂

      • Biljana July 9, 2010 at 12:22 AM #

        My parents never hid the fact that it was nudity and sex, but they DID used to tell me to close my eyes, because if I didn’t it would make my eyelashes fall off.

        😐

        • Aurora Blackguard July 9, 2010 at 2:12 AM #

          My dad told me that if I held hands with a boy I would get a baby. I believed him all the way up to age nine 😛

          • Vanessa July 9, 2010 at 10:03 AM #

            Ahahaha! I have a feeling my dad might have told me something similar…

      • jenn fitzgerald July 9, 2010 at 9:13 AM #

        I don’t remember any movies with sex scenes in them that I watched with my dad, but I remember a couple with nudity and him just going “oh, didn’t remember this was in here” and just sort of shrugging.

        My mom is the OMG Cover Your Eyes! type, lol

    • Kat Zhang July 8, 2010 at 10:53 PM #

      Hahaha, I had teachers who did this at school. They’d show us a movie (sometimes an adaptation of a book or something) that had a sex scene, then leap out of their chairs at the right moment and cover up the projector with a sheet of paper.

      …which was interesting if the sound was still on…

      • Biljana July 9, 2010 at 12:22 AM #

        Lol in grade 8 we were watching Titanic and the teacher told us to tell her when the sex scene came up so she could fast forward it which was like a) dude we’re 14 and the Titanic sex scene is just a hand against a steamy window and b) you’re asking US to tell you, which means that you’re assuming most of us have seen the movie, which means that we will have already seen the sex scene, so what the hell’s the point?

        In the end we forgot. Just as the boat started sinking she jumped up and said “Is it there yet?” When she saw we passed it she was like “Oh. Okay, whatever.”

        She didn’t even care. It’s all the stupid board of education red tape.

  7. Shalini July 8, 2010 at 9:01 AM #

    I agree with pretty much everything everyone has said here.

    I can remember, as a teenager, racing through books to get to the sex scenes. But those were adult books and I think I’m pretty well-adjusted. They didn’t scar me for life!

    I believe that where YA books score highest is when they’re full of sexual tension and lust. Not necessarily the act of sex itself, but the promise of it.

    As a YA author, I write what the story dictates and try to ignore what the media etc deem as appropriate. If sex is an integral part of the story, then it shouldn’t be glossed over. There is a fine line though – too graphic is almost as bad as not at all.

    • Julie Eshbaugh July 8, 2010 at 11:06 AM #

      Shalini – I agree so much with your comment! I especially appreciate what you say about “sexual tension;” I remember as a teenager the tension was usually the best part. It still is as an adult. Think about it. So many TV series have the girl & guy who belong together, but never seem to get there. You sit on your couch & route for them to finally kiss, but they never do. Of course, we all know why. Once they do, the tension is gone and it often kills the show! So yes, I agree that sexual tension can be as effective in a story as the act of sex itself.

      • Shalini July 8, 2010 at 12:19 PM #

        Julie – It’s kind of like life. The wanting is often so much better than the getting! (Not always though lol)

  8. Georgiana July 8, 2010 at 10:04 AM #

    To me, sex in YA novels is probably one of the most acceptable forms of sex in literature. I am more likely to endorse it in a YA novel than an adult romance, for example. The reason? Realism. YA is more likely to deal with the realistic consequences that come with sex, whether it is the physical ones [risk of pregnancy, choices concerning that, STIs], or emotional ones [feeling strange, not knowing how to react or who to tell, or even feeling a greater love for your partner!] These things are glossed over in adult books, where everyone is assumed to be an “expert”, when, in reality, even adults experience that same rush of emotion and are subject to the same physical implications as teenagers. They just may have done it more times.

    One thing that really bothers me, and I think is a reason why parents are so hesitant to allow their kids to read about sex, is that many times sex is in books and it does not serve to advance the plot, teach anything, or show any sort of characterization–it’s purely gratuitous. If there’s no reason for your characters to be getting it on in the back of a truck somewhere, I don’t really want to hear about it. Just like I wouldn’t want to hear about how a protagonist brushes her teeth every morning for five minutes exactly–it just doesn’t add to the story! Sex for sex’s sake is annoying and definitely makes me put the book down, just as I do when I see gratuitous violence.

    Another thing that bothers me is the glamorization of sex that occurs in some adult and YA novels. We all know it can be one of the most enjoyable things ever experienced, but not because every single moment of the act is perfect, fireworks go off, you’re completely synchronised, etc etc. I’d love to see more authors in ALL genres focus on the little quirky things and come up with new unique details. This happens far more in YA and literary adult fiction than the commercial genres.

    All in all, I don’t approve of censorship. I DO approve of increased realism though, at least to balance out all those picture perfect sex scenes that are already out there showing us how *ohmygod amazing* it is. YA is a great genre because it’s so grounded in truth-it’s a shame that people desire to censor over other genres.

    • Vanessa July 8, 2010 at 4:24 PM #

      Yeah, sometimes people write the type of sex they WISH they could have all the time. They want to excite, not bore or make readers feel uncomfortable. But sex is more than just those perfect sex scenes. Some are terrifying, or gritty, or painful, or funny; and sure, some sex can be great. But it all comes down to whether or not it serves any real purpose in your story.

  9. Cristina Guarino July 8, 2010 at 10:15 AM #

    This is such an interesting post! I’m kicking myself for taking a hiatus right when a post I feel so strongly about is being compiled, haha.

    I’m all for sex in YA. To me, it has many pros.

    If portrayed realistically, like pretty much all of you touched on, it can be a learning experience. Plus, it’s just the reader and the book, so there’s nothing to feel embarrassed about (although a lot of us do feel that way when first reading it). Also, it’s a way to satisfy the curiosity without committing the act (this goes against the idea that such YA novels encourage sex), much like violent video games. Many may disagree with me on this, but I’ve always taken the stance that, while a select few may use the violent games as a model for everyday behavior, most can use it as a means for venting anger without actually hurting anyone physically or emotionally/mentally. But that’s a debate for another time.

    As a kid, I never really got “the talk.” My first encounter with sex was my best friend at the time taking my naked barbie and his superman doll and smashing them together, explaining that’s how babies were made. So from an early age I was both overwhelmingly curious and absolutely terrified on the topic.

    But despite being embarrassed, scared, and grossed out by the fact that anyone other than my parents had to see me naked, my fascination for the mysterious and the taboo kept me hooked. I wanted to know everything there was about it, and my curiosity increased as time went on.

    By the time I was in about fifth grade, I opened a book in my school library that was, creepily enough, dedicated to one of the teachers. The book was called JUST FRIENDS, and even though it was a YA, it was DEFINITELY looked over when added to the collection (I went to a Catholic school, so there’s no way it was intentionally put there). The whole first chapter is about sex, a person’s first time, getting to know your partner’s body, etc. The discussion takes place amongst a group of teenage/young adult friends who, in my naive opinion at the time, entirely too close.

    I was still young, so I shut the book right away; not because I didn’t want to continue reading it, but rather to avoid being caught with it (if you haven’t realized, that’s a great example of the problem with the way adults handle sex). But because I was so oblivious to the true facts of sex, I wanted to read it. Bad. To be honest, I might go out and buy it now (10 years later) just to see what I missed.

    But that fascination led me to skip over YA books completely and devour adult books. Why have the awkward and partially-censored when you can have the orgasmic and the so-called “unadulterated”?

    Nicholas Sparks was one of my favorites, especially since I was a helpless romantic. But as much as I enjoy his stories, they aren’t realistic–and neither were the more graphic chik lit books and “lemon” fanfiction I started to become interested in. They all gave me a really warped sense of what sex is like, and although I didn’t make any absolutely terrible decisions concerning it, I was anxious to try it and incredibly disappointed when my first experiences didn’t live up to the mind-blowing “O”fests some romance novels made them out to be.

    Now I try to read some of those works and I can’t do it. I won’t name names to avoid insulting anyone, but there was a certain series my stepmom was in LOVE with that I tried to read, and despite the steamy sex scenes that occurred every three pages, I just couldn’t do it. I found myself getting bored, laughing, or rolling my eyes every time the heroine nearly imploded with every minor skin-on-skin contact. It’s not reality, it’s fantasy. Which is fine–for adults who know better. But in YA, sex SHOULD be present. In its realistic, honest, uncensored form.

  10. Aurora Blackguard July 8, 2010 at 11:02 AM #

    Haha. Sex in YA. I am ashamed (well not really) to say that I learned about sex when I was like 11 and it was never through my parents. They NEVER told me and/or mentioned anything about the act so I was pretty ignorant all the way through primary school. It was kind of funny how everyone else knew about it though. Like that inside joke that everyone but me was in on.

    Oddly enough, there was this debate we were discussing about how China was censoring certain websites. Somehow or rather it got to the point where we were talking about how they were right in censoring the sites to prevent indecent exposure like pornography and stuff. It’s not the same thing exactly but the point about how by censoring everything, you’re basically opening your teenagers up to ignorance and while the saying goes ignorance is bliss, it also begets the question: isn’t ignorance also very dangerous?

    Wouldn’t it be better if they knew about what our body does and how it clicks before something bad happens? I mean, okay, turning kids into mini adults who know about EVERYTHING is a bad idea too but wouldn’t it be better that they learn about? So I guess sex in YA is okay but like Savannah, I guess it all come down to how it’s portrayed.

    Is the character someone who is sleeping around for food and food/status/money and constantly doing it? Or is she/he sleeping with someone they think/are in love with? It all comes down to how the author portrays it to the teenager. Yet not all the blame can be placed on the author’s shoulders. It’s also up to the reader’s interpretation and understanding of it.

    So I say, nookie ahead. But please get someone who understands to explain to you what a G-spot or a condom is not NOT go around asking various people what they are and making a fool out of yourself. Believe me, I did 🙂

    • svonnah July 8, 2010 at 2:13 PM #

      I love your description of everyone being in on some joke but you. I remember in third grade someone was trying to explain to me what ‘humping’ was and I just was completely not getting it. Later in 5th grade I remember hearing the word ‘condom’ for the first time and not knowing what was up, and when I found out that there’s supposed to be blood the first time you do it I was horrified! Everything just kept getting worse and worse, lol!

      • Kat Zhang July 8, 2010 at 2:21 PM #

        Sav, I had no idea what “humping” was in third grade either…There were these fifth grade boys yelling about it (they were wrestling), and my fellow third-grader whispered “Should we tell the teacher what he said?”

        And I was all, “Huh?” 😛

      • Vanessa July 8, 2010 at 4:15 PM #

        I didn’t know what porn was in the 6th grade. And we were all running around in the schoolyard, yelling “Porn pose!”, while someone else pretended to take pictures. We all did it in my grade, and my parents were horrified when I asked them one day what “porn” was. I just thought it was another word for “sexy”.

        • Angela July 8, 2010 at 5:08 PM #

          Buwahahahaha.

          I used to think that having sex was just stripping down naked, getting into a bed, and just kissing. I didn`t know that there was much more to that =D

          That explains why I freaked out whenever some creep in elementary school tried to kiss me.

          • Kat Zhang July 8, 2010 at 10:51 PM #

            Over-Innocent Children–> Writers?

            Hmm….

            😛

          • Biljana July 9, 2010 at 12:34 AM #

            Same! I remember when I was like 6 I briefly saw a clip from some Catherine the Great TV series where it was clearly supposed to imply that they would have sex. All they did was take off their clothes and get into bed. So whenever I heard the word I’d always get that image in my head and think “What’s the big deal?”

      • Aurora Blackguard July 9, 2010 at 12:13 AM #

        Yeah, lol! My friends actually had to sit me down and explain it to me the way they understood it. Not very well, I might add.

  11. pjpocahontas July 8, 2010 at 11:07 AM #

    I think if it is relevant to the plot, then it’s fine. And when written well, it’s captivating for teenagers. I remember the ‘banned’ book at school when I was younger was Judy Blume’s Forever – and of course we all had to read it, and really it was quite tame. Recently I read ‘Forbidden’ by Tabitha Suzuma (and you should all read it) and I thought she wrote it extremely well.

    I think the issue comes in because books don’t have age-banding (yet, thank goodness) but what this means is a 9 year old may pick up and read it, so that is problematic for some parents.

    • Vanessa July 8, 2010 at 4:18 PM #

      I agree; I think sex, much like drugs or alcohol or abuse, needs to be relevant to the plot or to character development. It needs to serve a purpose. Otherwise, what’s the point, right?

      And, well, most 9 year olds don’t head to book stores or libraries by themselves. But once someone (like a teen) is independent enough and are able to go to book stores or libraries by themselves, they should be allowed to pick up whatever type of book they want.

    • Biljana July 9, 2010 at 12:40 AM #

      Oh dear lord can you imagine age-banding for books where they’d be taken as strictly as movies in theatres? I’d tear my hair out.

      But it’s an interesting idea because maybe that would give books a ‘cool’ repuation. Kind of like “Oh dude TOTALLY read this crazy NC-17 book. I’m so badass.”

      People would be shoulder-tapping for literature.

      God that’s sad.

  12. Cari July 8, 2010 at 11:24 AM #

    As someone who grew up around censorship, I’ve come to be a huge fighter against it. Teens are going to recognize if they want to read something or not, they have the ability to choose. I put down books when I was younger that I thought were inappropriate, and I didn’t need an adult to tell me to do that. the only thing censorship generally does it makes them want to read a particular book more.

    As far as sex in YA Lit, I agree with most of what I read here. What type of book to you want to write? Good quality literature, or just a book? I think the difference lies the intent. In quality literature, everything is thought out and has a purpose. So with my writing I ask myself if a scene really is necessary or if it’s sex just for the sake of sex. Does is have to be graphic? Well, does that really advance the story and the characters or am I just trying to appeal to a certain reader? Basically, literature ought to depict life in a way that is purposeful.

    • Vanessa July 8, 2010 at 4:20 PM #

      I grew up around a lot of censorship as well. Needless to say, when I finally rebelled, I REBELLED. It wasn’t pretty. The more you hold something back, the more someone will fight to have it.

  13. Olga July 8, 2010 at 11:50 AM #

    I still have my first romance novel. I found it while rummaging the book racks at a local thrift store with my mommy when I was in the 5th grade. I was obsessed with wolves and saw a BIG book called “Cry Wolf” by Tami Hoag. I asked my mommy if I could get it. She read the back and gave it back to me with a yes.

    You could say it was an accidental romance novel. I didn’t realize it would be. I never considered it. It’s STILL one of my favorite books. In fact, I have three copies, including that battered old first one.

    Sex was never a taboo topic in my family. There were NO taboo topics in my family. The rules were simple – we treat you like an adult, we expect you to act like one. Do whatever you like, just don’t be an idiot about it.

    I had free reign to ask whatever questions I wanted, to look for answers wherever I pleased, and to explore whatever topics suited my mind at the moment.

    My only thought on sex in YA is this: if it belongs in the story, write it. You can’t please everyone. Trying will destroy your story.

    My current WIP has a handful of stereotypes. Do I care? No. Because my characters FIT. And I LIKE them just the way they are. I won’t change them because someone disagrees. Just like I won’t keep a character a puritanical virgin when she wants to have sex with her boyfriend just because someone’s mother is going to jump down my throat about it.

    • Kat Zhang July 8, 2010 at 10:50 PM #

      My family is similar. There were no taboo topics. It’s something I’m very grateful for 😀

      Good luck with your WIP!

  14. Miss Rosemary July 8, 2010 at 4:47 PM #

    Great points ladies! I think as long as the author keeps is appropriate for the target audience (YA or adult, or older YA or whatever) then it’s not a problem. It’s ultimately up to the reader. Like Vanessa said, if the reader is ready or curious, she’ll read it, if not she’ll close it and run away

    • Vanessa July 9, 2010 at 10:01 AM #

      I really wish people would give teens a little more credit. They can make their own choices. It’s frustrating when people think that kids won’t understand something, or they’ll take it at face value.

      There was this great non-fiction book called Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak. It was a collection of accounts from youth (from as young as 8 to as old as 18) about how the war was affecting their lives. And it was banned in a lot of places. One section had a young girl talk about her sister, a suicide bomber, and how one day she hoped to be like her; and adults thought it was a terrible message. But kids understood that it was sad for her to think like that. The same goes with sex. We just need to stop thinking so little of them.

  15. Meagan Spooner July 8, 2010 at 5:58 PM #

    I was definitely one of those kids who read up. The first books I remember reading that had sex in them (beyond a glossed-over paragraph, anyway) were the Dragonriders of Pern books, and I read those in elementary school; even they weren’t exactly graphic. The protagonist in The White Dragon has sex with what is for all intents and purposes his vassal, and it’s very one-sided and she’s clearly just doing her duty because she has no choice, and I was completely shocked to discover that wow, okay, so sometimes guys do this when they’re NOT in love with you? Whoa!

    I mean, how many times do you hear in educational literature about The Sex Talk the phrase “when a man and a woman love each other very much…” For me it was an eye-opener that sex isn’t always about love, and that men and women often do it for different reasons, and may or may not realize this at the time. I actually think that books (depending on genre, of course) are more honest about sex than Hollywood, which frankly, is the other major source teenagers have for learning about sex beyond school and actual experimentation.

    I suppose that what I’m trying to say is that kids have to learn about sex at some point, and the bloodless pamphlets from schools and doctors aren’t really going to do the job. You don’t want someone getting all their information from one source. I mean, clearly, you don’t want them getting all their information from romance novels either, because when was the last time you read a realistic sex scene in a romance novel? But an aggregation of lots of sources is how you want to learn about ANYTHING in the world, and kids learning about sex is no different.

    I think if I were a parent I would worry more about books (or movies or TV shows or whatever) that would teach my kids about poor emotional choices–I’d worry about books that might teach my daughter it’s okay to be a doormat, for example, or it’s cool to be in an abusive relationship, or that love and sex is the ONLY thing worth living for.

    • Kat Zhang July 8, 2010 at 7:57 PM #

      I agree, Meagan! Great response.

      I’d actually forgotten all about the sex in the Dragonriders of Pern series. I read those in elementary school and middle school, and to be honest, the sex in them (especially Dragonflight) kind of just rolled off my back. I read it. I got it. I realized why it was in there, and I moved on. Obviously, it didn’t make a huge impact on me or scar me for life or anything because I hardly remembered it until now.

      The book I mentioned in the post made a positive impact on my life. Other books that included sex made little impact at all. I can’t think of any that made a BAD impact, though…

    • svonnah July 9, 2010 at 10:17 AM #

      I remember the first gay sex scene I read was in a Pern book. They were doing it on a rock and a lion attacked. It was a very odd experience, lol.

  16. tymcon July 8, 2010 at 6:33 PM #

    I think it should be done as it fits. It might be diffrent in Ireland but we take don’t really find sex in YA books that big of a deal. Maybe that’s just my perspective.
    Like anything else put it in if it fits, but avoid it if it doesn’t. Strangely enough fictionpress is a pretty good example. If you read through a few stories in young adult section, or fantasy, or pretty much any section and you get to a sex scene, you can tell straight away it doesn’t fit. They either put it in there because they wanted to, or they never experianced it to begin whit.
    Like any other scene in a book it should further plot or character. In my opinion it should serve character more than plot.
    So i’m all for it. As long as it’s not borderline smut. Or false. Or ruins the character.
    So i’d only hate it if the Author didn’t use it properly. Like if they didn’t understand how important that scene is. It really has to be the most edited and refined part of the book, since it’s so intimate that’s when you see the character completly.

    • Georgiana July 8, 2010 at 7:32 PM #

      That would always make me laugh [and then stop reading] when I found those kinds of scenes on fictionpress, so it’s funny you should bring that up! It’s an example of authors throwing it in there for the fans [I’ve seen reviewers ask for that sort of thing] or just for themselves. Also the amount of incorrect mechanics *ahem* can be quite comical sometimes.

      But if that helps an author refine his or her technique of writing those scenes, then overall maybe it’s a good thing. Plus, reading them helps you know what to avoid :).

    • Biljana July 9, 2010 at 12:50 AM #

      I actually adore coming across sex scenes where the writer clearly has no experience because they’re SO hilarious to read. And I don’t feel bad about laughing at them at all. Because if you start going on about how some girl started to have an orgasm for fifteen minutes and then slipped out of him, you don’t deserve my respect. I don’t care if you don’t know any better. Do your research. Some of the best stuff I’ve read was totally ruined by terrible sex scenes.

  17. buybooksonline July 8, 2010 at 7:08 PM #

    sex in any form of fiction is ok as long as its not gratuitous and it advances the plot. Obviously YA fiction shouldn’t be loaded with explicit sex but as long as it is tastefully done then it’s ok.

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